By: Will Pinfold
Egor Grushin | website | facebook | twitter | bandcamp | soundcloud |
Released on June 1, 2016 via self-release
There has rarely been a time when logic, reason and clarity were so sorely needed, so the serene appearance of Ukrainian composer Egor Grushin’s fourth album, Once is extremely welcome, and it does not disappoint.
As with his previous album, Domenicano, Once consists of a set of tunes played by piano and string quartet and, as before, the most obvious attributes of Grushin’s art are a love of expressive melody and the desire to engage his listeners emotionally. Once kicks off with a short intro, establishing the elegant, clean weaving lines of the string quartet as well as the bright, harmonious texture and somewhat yearning, wistful feel which characterises the album as a whole. It’s been observed before, but although an unabashedly classical (even neo-romantic) composer, Grushin’s work has an irresistibly soundtrack-like quality and his musical peers are people like Howard Shore and Harry Gregson-Williams who share both his intense melodicism and his direct emotional appeal.
The album consists of nine fairly short pieces, each with a precise, evocative title and a well-defined mood. The titles of the songs are, like the tunes themselves, clear and apparently simple, but ultimately they are also enigmatic, giving a hint of the feeling behind the music rather than suggesting anything as blatant as a theme or subject. Essential exemplifies this; what the title refers to is anyone’s guess – an essential summing up of Grushin’s style/approach? It’s a beautifully balanced piece; calm, reflective, restrained but expansive, it has a melancholy but not dirge-like quality, pretty but not at all cloying.
The sequencing of the album highlights the different moods of each piece, but it also creates an ebb and flow that feels every bit as logical as the individual compositions. Following from Essential, the shorter Summer is probably the least substantial piece on the album; built around an appropriately warm and light piano figure, its bright pizzicato strings prevent it from soaring in the manner of Grushin’s most affecting melodies and reduce the mostly widescreen appeal of the album to something dainty and smaller-than-life. Even here though, the beautifully ascending piano part and the restless time signature have an inventiveness that engages in an intellectual way, even if it isn’t as emotionally engrossing as the rest of the album. By immediate contrast, the title track is a beautifully sombre, yearning and pensive tune that looks to the period when composers like Beethoven were pushing the boundaries of classical music into new expressive and romantic directions.
Avant-garde and progressive in the romantic era, this is exactly the kind of music which became the hugely cheapened muzak of modern times, which makes its freshness here all the more impressive. The parallel with composers of film music seems particularly apposite when discussing the more romantic aspects of Grushin’s music; like the best cinematic scores, the pieces on Once never feel like either bloodless exercises in composition or exploitative, cliché-ridden ‘mood music’; they remain emotionally engaging, involving the listener in Grushin’s narrative, or rather encouraging them to apply Once as the soundtrack to their own experiences.
A quick summary of the rest of album shows how this all works; Waltz, is, as the title suggests, a waltz, with a particularly sprightly and delicate piano part. A fast-flowing, chiming interlude between two more densely arranged, emotionally complex pieces, it embodies the album’s preoccupation with light and shade while being a satisfying piece in its own right. The insistent drive of Sparkle initially seems to prolong the mood of Waltz, but the strings add a darker, more dramatic and almost tempestuous mood, especially in its slow passages. These changes of pace and style are smoothly unobtrusive; the wistful Charming Smile, though no less pretty than its predecessors, has a more modern, less classical feel and features what sounds like a toy piano and a melody that is unexpectedly reminiscent of the work of The Cure. Ocean, another contrast, is a beautifully evocative mood piece, as paradoxically calm and yet lively as sunlight sparkling on water. Loss closes things somewhat in the dramatic vein of Sparkle; a solemn, march-like tune with a bittersweet atmosphere and dynamic strings.
Once is every bit the equal of Grushin’s previous album, Domenicano and in many ways is a very similar work. Although imbued with the same romantic wistfulness though, Once tends overall to separate the darker pieces from the lighter ones, making an album that is, in quite a self-conscious way, extremely well-balanced. This carefully-planned quality never becomes purely academic; a keynote of all of Egon Grushin’s work is the way that, without being overly predictable, he makes the melodies go exactly where the listener wants and expects them to go. It’s a skill that is part compositional logic, but also part instinct and it is this element that makes Once so engaging and satisfying. Beauty, clarity and logic are as essentially, definingly human traits as their opposites, and in a time when ugliness, chaos and stupidity are so rampant and victorious, this kind of intensely sane, humane music can only become more important.